Barry Trotz Must Stick with Ilya Sorokin After Islanders Rout Penguins in Game 4

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMay 23, 2021

New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) during the third period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders won 4-1. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

UNIONDALE, New York — From start to finish Saturday at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Ilya Sorokin showed an abundance of one thing: poise.

The 25-year-old rookie goaltender got the start in Game 4 of the New York Islanders' first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins after Semyon Varlamov was in the net for a losing effort in Game 3. Sorokin had been fantastic in the first game in Pittsburgh, saving 39 of the 42 shots he faced.

Sorokin made a quick save 61 seconds into the game, stopping Kasperi Kapanen. It wasn't a particularly acrobatic save, but it was a puck he needed to stop.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The Islanders were down 2-1 in the series coming into Saturday, and their one win—an overtime victory in Game 1—wasn't convincing. But their efforts were exceptionally convincing Saturday, as they used their frustrating defensive system, physicality and good old-fashioned peskiness to grind down the Penguins and defeat them 4-1 to even the series.

Sorokin played a big role but wasn't the star. As is typical with the Islanders, the system was the standout. His workload wasn't exceptionally heavy in a 29-save performance. Most of those shots were not dangerous, Pittsburgh only recorded seven high-danger scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick, but he made it clear that he deserves to keep the net.

"Ilya, when called upon, I thought he looked really sharp in net," coach Barry Trotz said. "It was a shame that we gave up that goal at the end, but I thought he looked solid. I thought our team played the right way and we were able to get a victory."

It was the 25-year-old's first start in front of a raucous Coliseum crowd. He took it in stride, but that shouldn't be surprising considering he backstopped CSKA Moscow to a KHL championship in 2019.

"He's been under the spotlight a lot and in those big moments," Trotz said. "I think it's just his demeanor. He enjoys those moments, just like Varly does, but he's not a guy who is a pure rookie coming into the NHL or in high-pressure situations. He's had a lot of them, just in different leagues. I think he just feels very comfortable."

The comfort was obvious, and Sorokin said he drew on his experience. He used the same mindset he has employed during other championship games.

"Every playoff game, you have a high level of concentration and focus, and you have to be ready 100 percent," Sorokin said. "It doesn't matter if it's in juniors, the KHL or the NHL."

If anything, the crowd helped him. Fans make a difference, adding to the intensity level of the game and fueling the adrenaline.

"Finally, I saw supporters during a game," he said. "I was very excited because we played for fans. When you hear how loud it is, you feel the energy. I just enjoy the game and enjoy the moment."

Sorkin allowed the team to play with a lead, which was something the Islanders haven't been doing during in this series. He didn't allow a goal until 17:25 of the third period, but the Islanders had already wrapped up the game.

When he did have work in the crease, he handled it with ease. Any good goalie makes the difficult saves look easy, and with Sorokin it was no different.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"I think the big characteristic of Ilya, and even shooting him on practice, is his quickness," forward Jordan Eberle said. "I mean, laterally, side to side, some of the saves he makes are pretty amazing. It's impressive to see him, obviously, in his first playoff run. I know he's been through it in Russia. But to have poise and just his confidence back there and just his calmness, he makes big saves for us, and he's done it all year."

Sorokin conducted his postgame Zoom press conference mostly in English. He had the help of a translator for questions asked by media members, but his answers were in English. There are veteran athletes who still get nervous during press conferences, and it's impressive for a player new to the league and relatively new to the United States to talk in another language in such a public format.

It speaks to his ability to stay calm and composed.

The Islanders' two wins in the series have come with Sorokin in the net. These were the games wherein the team played its brand of hockey. Trotz likes to say that it's impossible for him to make a bad choice when he has two good goaltenders, but the right choice is clearly Sorokin.

If he has a bad game or two, then maybe they could use go back to Varlamov. Like Trotz said, there is no wrong decision. But throughout a seven-game series, it's best to ride the hot hand. The two of them are clearly close, and Varlamov is a veteran who doesn't require preferential treatment. He rushed out to the ice to hug Sorokin following the win, clearly happy for his teammate and for his team as well.

Sorokin should be in the net for Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena. It's his net to lose.